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Corrupt Practices Prevention Act (1854)

Volume 156: debated on Wednesday 15 February 1860

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Select Committee Appointed

said, that with the permission of the House he would move that a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the operation and effect of the Corrupt Practices Prevention Act (1854), and whether any further measures are necessary for the prevention of corrupt practices at elections. He would trouble the House with a very few observations, because he understood the House had practically agreed to the reference. It was desirable, however, that a system should be adopted by which something like honesty and purity of election might be secured. The hon. Baronet the Member for READING had suggested that the petitioning candidate, after bringing home a charge of bribery, should have the seat even without a majority of legal votes. This would entirely overturn the lex et consuetudo Parliament. In fact, a proposition more monstrous and unconstitutional as a specific against bribery he was at a loss to conceive. As the hon. and learned Member for Nottingham had withdrawn his Bill he would not now revive the discussion; but there were great difficulties in the question, and the main reason why he had given notice of this Motion was, that being now early in the Session, they might, by the appointment of a Committee of Members thoroughly conversant with the subject, if the House were sincere, proceed to the enactment of some real measure to put a stop to bribery. The Corrupt Practices Prevention Act of 1854 was the emanation of a Parliamentary Committee; to a certain extent it had worked well; but he must say what little experience he had entirely corroborated what had been stated by the right hon. Baronet (Sir G. Grey), that in practice the provision in respect to the election auditor had become perfectly nugatory. He could not give a stronger evidence of this than the fact that after the last election there were twenty-six or twenty-seven Election Committees, and in no single instance had the return been made by the election auditor in time to come before the Committee. The election auditor's returns almost invariably came in after the petition had been tried. He did not mean to say that, with additional safeguards, the institution might not be made a valuable one; but, practically, at present it was utterly illusory. He trusted the result of the Committee would be the production of some rational measure calculated to do away with the serious evils now complained of; for, as the great historian who had just passed away from us truly observed, the history of Parliamentary corruption remained yet to be written. He trusted that blot, which sullied and disgraced our institutions, would, as the result of the investigation of this Committee, be speedily swept away, leaving pure, as it ought to be, the noblest institution which a free people was ever permitted to enjoy.

said, he rose to second the Motion, as he thought that the right hon. Baronet had taken the right course in recommending that the subject should be left to the consideration of a Select Committee. He (Mr. Serjeant Kinglake) felt that this question was one not only of serious importance, but of great difficulty. It was quite clear that hitherto the Legislature had failed in accomplishing its great object in the suppression of corrupt practices at elections. It was very easy to introduce a speculative remedy; what was required was a clear, distinct, and practical remedy. The Corrupt Practices Prevention Act would have better deserved its name if it had been called the Corrupt Practices Protection Act. That measure might have been good enough in the intention of its framers; but it had wofully failed in practice. The Gloucester Election Committee stated in their Report that the office of election auditor existed only to delude the Legislature and the public—that instead of aiding in the detection of electoral abuses it acted as a screen to prevent their exposure. What was wanted to put down corruption was not so much severe penalties and more stringent laws as increased means of detection. If there had been a strong feeling out of doors against bribery the law would have been put in force and found effective, but then there was a freemasonry carried on both sides in the boroughs where bribery was practised, which rendered the discovery of delinquents most difficult. Of late years the Election Committees of that House had, happily, been more earnest and more honest in the discharge of their duties; and in exact proportion as Members petitioned against found that their seats were really in peril candidates became more scrupulous as to the practices they sanctioned at the time of an election. By facilitating inquiry and improving the tribunal to which election petitions were referred, more would be done towards eradicating this evil than by sentencing hundreds of men to hard labour, or by making Members of that House take oaths at the table, and enter, as it were, into recognizances for their future conduct. He begged to second the Motion.

remarked, that notwithstanding all that had been said to the contrary the Corrupt Practices Act had been attended with good results. It was true that much remained to be done to extirpate electoral corruption, but the tendency of things was towards improvement. The disclosures at Gloucester showed that while thousands had been spent there at recent elections, tens of thousands used to be spent in the same manner in former times. The mode of appointing the election auditor might be improved if his nomination were in the hands of some authority unconnected with the locality. The power of scrutinizing election accounts or of appointing the officer who was to scrutinize them, might be safety intrusted to the revising barrister. If the House were to inflict excessive penalties on persons guilty of bribery, a revulsion of feeling might be excited in favour of the offenders, it would be much better to make such persons the objects of public ridicule and contempt than to elevate them into the position of martyrs. The worst kind of manufacture was that of martyrs.

observed, it was the wisest course to refer this and the other Bills on the same subject to the Select Committee. A remark had been made with respect to the Hull Election Committee to the effect that there was a failure of justice, because while one man was condemned another escaped. That was a defect incidental to every mode of administering justice, because unless a man, whatever his guilt, were accused and sufficient evidence was brought against him he could not be punished. The way to prevent colourable employment at elections would be to disqualify voters engaged by either candidate from voting at elections.

said, that one cause of the non-appearance of prosecutors for bribery, was the general repugnance of the English people to qui tam actions, the only remedy which the law provided for the offence. He did not think the appointment of a public prosecutor would remedy the evil. The other day the House ordered the prosecution of two persons for bribery at the Beverley election; and what was the result? Anybody who referred to The Times of the day preceding, would find that at a public meeting of the inhabitants of Beverley, not consisting exclusively of one party, but even comprising some opponents of the two convicted bribers, strong resolutions were passed condemnatory of the course taken by that House, and pledging the meeting to resist such "an attack on the liberties of Beverley." It appeared from this that, in one borough at least, it was thought perfectly legitimate to bribe. When bribery was the subject of jests in the periodical literature of the day, it was plain that the tone of the public mind required elevating. He had had the good fortune to be engaged in three election contests in which the solicitors on both sides thought they would have been disgraced by taking a fee for their services. He had had some difficulty in prevailing on one professional gentleman to accept a fee for acting as election agent. It was no les3 bribery for a solicitor to take a retainer of twenty-five guineas than for a poor voter to take five shillings for loitering about a committee-room as a messenger.

said that one source of corruption hitherto overlooked took the form of loans from candidates to their constituents. Applications were sometimes made to a Member for loans after his return; and though these transactions might not appear to either party concerned to be at variance with law or morals, there was no doubt that the money being given in consideration of political support they were essentially corrupt. Such loans would naturally influence future votes, without any further money being necessarily passed to the recipients about the time of another election. The Committee to whom this question was to be referred, while endeavouring to stop up all the other channels of corruption, ought not to neglect the one which he had indicated.

hoped that the Committee would inquire into the whole question of election expenses, particularly into the system of employing paid canvassers. The masses of the people, he believed, desired to have the expenses of elections diminished. A very great source of expense, however, was the machinery created by Parliament itself.

said, he did not believe that bribery was to be put down by severity alone. Certainty of detection and punishment would, in his opinion, be more efficacious. With reference to the payment of the travelling expenses of voters, he would suggest that it could hardly be made illegal without, in some counties, rendering necessary the erection of a polling place for only a dozen or so of voters.

said, he wished to call attention to the influence which might be exercised by collectors of rates and taxes, and to express a hope that they would be placed in the same position as election auditors, and forbidden to take any part, direct or indirect, in elections.

Motion agreed to.

Select Committee appointed—

"To inquire into the operation and effect of the Corrupt Practices Prevention Act (1854), and whether any and what further measures are necessary for the prevention of Corrupt Practices at Elections."